Camden Town, 1949. Being in a homosexual relationship and committing suicide are both criminal acts – and Kenny Morgan is in trouble. Mike Poulton’s lauded play explores the real-life events that inspired Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea. It opens with the moment Morgan’s neighbours find him, naked and half-dead, curled around the gas fire. They manage to revive him and we follow his struggle through 24 desperate hours, lurching between his malicious lover, Alec, his controlling ex-lover, Rattigan, and various well-intentioned neighbours.
Kenny Morgan was well received when it premiered at Hackney’s Arcola Theatre in May. It’s back for a four-week run with the entire original cast directed once again by Lucy Bailey. Robert Innes Hopkin’s gorgeously detailed production never lets us forget the oppressive post-war setting. The atmosphere of the shabby, smoke-filled Camden flat is heavy with secrets and repressed desire, and the shadow of WWII looms large. The sustained pace and tension is a credit to Bailey’s tight direction, which stokes the narrative into a long, slow and ultimately and destructive burn.
Poulton’s play is a well-researched and accurate portrayal of Morgan’s relationship with Rattigan and the disastrous unrequited love affair the younger man left him for. It holds a mirror up to The Deep Blue Sea, adding a deeper layer of understanding to the tragic brilliance of Rattigan’s most famous work. With occasional lines borrowed word for word from the original play, a delicate scattering of references and some self-deprecating digs at ‘theatre people’, there is plenty here to satisfy the playwright’s fans.
The comparisons with Rattigan’s work are only half the story though – Kenny Morgan is also fascinating as a standalone piece. The writing is at its finest when probing the dark depths of Rattigan’s and Alec’s vitriolic internalised homophobia. It also examines the utter lack of understanding of mental illness in post-war Britain. Mr Ritter, who cares for Morgan after his botched suicide attempt, chillingly reveals his disbelief that Morgan is actually ill or that anything can be done to prevent him from trying again.
Each of the seven performances is strong – including those of Lowenna Melrose (Norma) and Marlene Sidaway (Mrs Simpson) who play the unfortunately underdeveloped female characters. George Irving brings a refreshing dose of black humour and stubborn pragmatism to his role as Mr Ritter, the struck-off former doctor. The compassion shown by Matthew Bulgo’s hapless Mr Lloyd is sincere, but he’s most likable when giving Rattigan his true opinion of The Harlequinade: “Didn’t quite hit the mark, that one.”
Less likable are the three core characters. As Alec, Pierro Niel-Mee glitters with careless cruelty. The line between selfishness and abuse blurs as he dispenses tiny morsels of false hope with calculated precision – which the pathetic Kenny gratefully seizes on. Paul Keating’s performance as Kenny is devastatingly powerful, and drags the audience along for the agonising and claustrophobic ride through his life of doomed love.
Tall, imposing and impeccably dressed, Simon Dutton has impressive gravitas as Rattigan. Dutton shows us Rattigan’s highly polished public persona; he relishes power play and is at ease with his own wealth and success. But in the end he is too good in his role as the respectable man, and fails to summon the care or sincerity needed to reach Morgan for good.
This moving play is richly detailed and highly accomplished. Its subtle complexity offers both a companion piece to The Deep Blue Sea and an examination of the desperate isolation of depression, and how little society understands of it.
Kenny Morgan is on at the Arcola until 15th October 2016. Click here for more details.